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I’ve made it clear that prayer does not change God’s mind. It can’t. God is immutable, and his predictions or knowledge about the universe (and his own actions) are set in stone from causally before the creation of the universe. It’s all down to his infallible foreknowledge.

So prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind. But people still do it. Believers believe (because that’s what they do!), somehow and for some reason, that their prayer will enact change away from God’s divinely foreknown course. The trolley is on the railroad, but they think they have the lever in their hands to change tracks for that God-driven cart.

Some people realize this and talk about prayer, then, not being so much about changing the course of the universe, but about making the prayer-giver feel better about themselves, or get closer to God, or some other form of indulgence.

With prayer, you count those supposedly fulfilled prayers (which are, in reality, coincidence) and forget the thousands of times they have gone unanswered. Because prayer works. When you’re the lead statistician.

I want to bring you to the attention of a comment from “jennny”, a commenter here at my column, who recounted the following on my article “The prima facie problems with prayer.”

I was struggling with my doubts and getting close to deconversion when the young pastor of a church I knew well, found he had terminal cancer. So much for his recent prayer letters expressing his thrill and delight at being called by god to minister in this very deprived inner city area and the conversions he was facilitating and the assurance the best was yet to be for his church.

First of all, yes. This does look like a “rich reward” for doing God’s work. God moves in mysterious ways, I guess. You know, punishing ways. Or ways that make it look, rather obviously, like he doesn’t exist. She continues:

The church announced a night of prayer. I never really understood them. Jesus said not to use ‘vain repetitions’. All we wanted was that Tim got well, that his pregnant wife was OK and that the medical staff treating him, did so successfully. That’s 3 sentences…did one just go on saying them all night long – and what about that verse that says god knows our needs before we ask him? So god was teasing us, playing with us, making us think he might change his mind, effect a healing miracle and let Tim live.

This is spot on. Good counter-apologetics. And pointing out some of the problematic ideas associated with prayer. And how much prayer is enough? An all-night prayer vigil? Is that not somewhat over the top? Surely God is not more convinced the longer you pray. The intervention itself should provide its own warrant, not a bunch of people praying for an extra four hours. It’s not like God has a stopwatch that says, “Just two more hours, people, and I’ll do it. Not a minute less, not a second less. And everyone has to remain there praying. Everyone.”

Jennny has more to say:

It reminded me of someone I used to see in the park teasing his dog by holding a treat just out of reach and making it jump higher and higher for it and then sometimes eventually giving it to the dog and other times just giving a sneering laugh and putting it back in his pocket…as cruel as a capricious god toying with Tim’s friends as they prayed for him and expected a result….

I deconverted at that point but Tim’s wife gave birth alone in hospital and was able to take their 3-day old baby to the hospice caring for her husband, so just before his death, he was able to hold his child for a short while. To hear some folk in the church talk about this, you’d have thought their awesome god had given the family a wonderful miracle by that happening!

What a powerful analogy for the inconsistent way in which God apparently answers prayer. This reminds me of some of the behavioral theories behind gambling. For example, “near miss” and “the illusion of control” are both pertinent to prayer here. Sometimes, prayers that “sort of work” are counted as wins in the same way seen in gambling.

Other recent work has considered the impact of “near miss” outcomes, unsuccessful outcomes that are proximal to a major win (Kassinove and Schare, 2001). Using a slot machine task that delivered occasional jackpot wins, near misses (where the reels landed adjacent to a win) were associated with higher self-reported motivations to gamble than full-miss outcomes, despite their objective equivalence as nonwins (Clark et al., 2009).

Pathological Choice: The Neuroscience of Gambling and Gambling Addiction

Here’s an example of a near miss, or perhaps even one counted as a proper win, in prayer. I was talking to a fairly recent skeptic who has many Christian friends still. His twin brother recently went into a coma for a few very long weeks. His brother was, as his Christian friends assured him, prayed for on a consistent basis.

His brother came out of a coma.

Good news!

Except he wasn’t fully healed. He’s in a nursing home where he will remain, in a wheelchair, and can barely talk, having lost much of his motor function. He is permanently brain-damaged.

But because the doctor had told the family that he was probably going to die—that he wasn’t going to make it—those praying believers are now taking the credit for the prayers.

I asked my skeptic friend (a fairly prominent atheist YouTuber), “Do you think they count that as a success, in terms of prayer?”

“Yes.” There was no hesitation. In fact, they had even accused my friend of not being grateful for their prayers. “Since he’s made a comeback as far as being alive, they are taking credit for their prayers.”

Which is theologically rather odd. Jesus was fully healed. God has the ability, surely, to fully rather than partially heal someone. So why burden the family with this really challenging situation? Why destroy this man’s life chances and inhibit his ability to actually fully experience life and existence?

You could argue that this is a form of punishment. Do the praying believers want to take credit for that?

The “illusion of control” is another one. The idea is that we overestimate the control we have when we get the wins. In gambling, this may be when we think we got the win because we did a kind of lucky action or ritual, or of the way the games are constructed, where elements of the game seem like skill but are really just luck. As the previously quoted academic paper explains:

Illusory control can be fostered by a various psychological features of games, such as the involvement of a choice (e.g., choosing a lottery ticket), instrumental action (e.g., throwing a roulette ball), or apparent competition (Langer, 1975). A recent study using a contingency judgment task from the associative learning literature found that pathological gamblers displayed a greater tendency to overestimate their control of positive outcomes than nongambling participants (Orgaz et al., 2013). 

With prayer, it is the illusion that one has any control at all, as set out at the beginning of this piece and in previous articles. In terms of God’s divine foreknowledge, this makes no sense at all. And yet believers still do it, they still implore God to change his mind, and take the credit when he does, as if they had some element of control or determination in the outcome.

It seems to me that prayer is an illusion of control that people have over their and others’ futures. But an illusion it surely is.

Gambling companies know how to design games that hit the sweet spot for their gamblers—inconsistent reward, but enough of a dopamine release over the period of play to keep you hooked, to reward your commitment, to pay you for your dedication. Most of the time not much, but enough to keep you doing it.

Prayer too.

It doesn’t always work, but you can find that win if you look hard enough, and if you pray enough. Someone who buys a million lottery tickets at a one-in-a-million chance is probably going to win the lottery.

Counting the hits and ignoring the misses is a cornerstone of gambling psychology, too. You remember those big wins, even if they are swamped by the losses.

With prayer, you count those supposedly fulfilled prayers (which are, in reality, coincidence) and forget the thousands of times they have gone unanswered. Because prayer works. When you’re the lead statistician.

As I wrote in a previous piece about prayer (“Miracles, Prayer, Coincidences and Statistical Probability“):

The subject of prayer provides several problems for the believer, if thorough critical questioning is followed through. Part of the issue of perceived success of prayer is down to religious people interpreting coincidence as divinely purposed, and this is very common. I am aware of this, and am constantly amazed at the amount of seemingly dauntingly huge coincidences that I go through on a daily basis. Most of these are so innocuous as not to even stick in the memory. Usually, this will entail reading a book, and a certain word that you haven’t heard for ages, and then hearing it five seconds later on the television in the background. Wow! Who would have believed it? The problem is, we see things as much bigger coincidences than they really are because we are unaware of the frequency involved in calculating the probability….

The links to the mathematical Littlewood’s Law are obvious:

Littlewood defines a miracle as an exceptional event of special significance occurring at a frequency of one in a million. He assumes that during the hours in which a human is awake and alert, a human will see or hear one “event” per second, which may be either exceptional or unexceptional. Additionally, Littlewood supposes that a human is alert for about eight hours per day.

As a result a human will in 35 days have experienced under these suppositions about one million events. Accepting this definition of a miracle, one can expect to observe one miraculous event for every 35 days’ time, on average – and therefore, according to this reasoning, seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace….

As Christian theologian Randal Rauser observed in his debate book with John Loftus (God or Godless?):

Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once observed, “When I pray, coincidences happen, when I do not pray coincidences do not happen.” Many Christians can resonate with Temple’s wry reference to God’s providence. But atheists demur, charging that such experiences only evince a selection bias that counts the hits and ignores the misses. So who is right?

I can answer that.

The atheists.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...